Farming mad

🕔Jun 07, 2006

While controversy continues to swirl around the impact of fish farming on BC salmon stocks, research released this spring is being cited as evidence that government should think twice before approving licenses for fish farms near the mouth of the Skeena River.

A study conducted by IBM Business Consulting Services for the Smithers-based, non-profit Northwest Institute for Bioregional Research (NWI), attempted to quantify the economic value of wild salmon in the Skeena Watershed.

Its conclusion: wild salmon generates at least $82 million in revenue for residents of BC and almost $28 million for Alaska residents. Close to half of the total direct revenue comes from commercial fishing, while the other half is comprised of tourism, sport-fishing and the First Nations food fishery.

“Given the health and economic value of the Skeena fishery, it’s critical that wild salmon and the Skeena watershed are protected from direct threats like fish farm expansion, coalbed methane, and the proposed oil and gas pipeline,” said NWI executive director Pat Moss in a news release. It’s a view that’s also supported by the Friends of Wild Salmon, an organization comprised of commercial fishers, First Nations, local politicians, sport anglers, tourism operators and citizens.

“[The study] clearly shows that the British Columbia government has an obligation to guarantee residents can continue our occupations without being threatened by an industry that is dominated by foreign investors,” wrote Friends of Wild Salmon chair Andrew Williams in a letter to the Prince Rupert Daily News.

But the study is being derided by aquaculture proponents. Within days of its release, it was denounced as “silly” by Ian Roberts, president of Positive Aquaculture Awareness, an organization which seeks to enhance the image of aquaculture through education and community involvement.

Roberts took issue with the fact that the study computed the value of wild salmon stocks to Americans as well as British Columbians. “We are quite certain Alaska doesn’t write a cheque to Canada for the salmon they catch from the Skeena Watershed.”

He also highlighted the fact that the study’s authors estimated a 50% margin of error, and that it was paid for by a grant from an American non-profit foundation.

Roberts spoke to Northword from his workplace, a fish farm in Klemtu. Until recently, the farm was owned by Marine Harvest, a British/Dutch-controlled multinational which farms 10 species of fish in eight countries on five continents.

He indicated that the main problem he has with American money paying for this type of study is that funders may have connections (through board members, for example) to American corporate interests who might benefit from seeing the BC aquaculture industry weakened.

When asked whether the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, which funded the NWI study, had such connections, he conceded he wasn’t sure. “I don’t know much about the Moore Foundation,” he said.

Ivan Thompson, a board member of the Northwest Institute, was quick to deconstruct Roberts’ criticisms.

Thompson suggested that Roberts is attacking the source of the funds because he can’t identify any flaws in the research itself.

“Right now, there are NO jobs on the North Coast and Skeena Watershed that depend on aquaculture. But there are thousands of jobs that depend on wild salmon.”

“Why we put one very diverse industry at jeopardy to recklessly pursue another? And why shouldn’t we do the economic analysis, just because people in the region can’t afford to, when there are conservation foundations that are willing to fund this?”

“I challenge Ian Roberts to go out and raise some non-foreign money and contribute to our economic knowledge about this,” he said. He emphasized that to be taken seriously, such research ought to be undertaken by an independent firm, not the industry itself, with its methodology and data opened up for review as is the NWI study.

“This is one of the most straight-forward issue I’ve ever tackled in my life,” said Thompson. “It would be different if there were a bunch of people dependent on these jobs. There aren’t. It’s about one watershed, where fish farming doesn’t yet exist.”

“People don’t want it here. The science says it’s a bad idea. The economics says it’s risky. It’s a tiny minority that is pushing for this, and they’re almost entirely from outside the region.”

“I actually think this is a positive thing for the Skeena, because it’s allowing so many people to come together and think like a watershed instead of a bunch of diverse groups. It’s building community here. We are united on this case.”

Recent developments

This is just the latest round in a controversy which continues to simmer in BC’s Northwest. In the past six months, the heat of this debate has been raised by three key developments.

In March, Simon Fraser University researcher Rick Routledge published a study with biologist Alexandra Morton. Their research serves up direct evidence that sea lice, which are found in higher concentrations around fish farms, are killing migrating wild pink and chum salmon smolts in BC’s Broughton Archipelago. They also argued that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) used flawed research methods to support fish farming.

Also in March, a major aquaculture industry consolidation occurred. Norwegian fish-farm giant Pan Fish acquired Marine Harvest, making it the largest salmon-farming operation in BC. This considerably increased Pan’s economic and political clout, as it now controls more than half of BC’s 132 farms and about 20 per cent of the world’s farmed salmon market.

And in early April, the BC government announced its approval of an application by a Norwegian firm, Greig Seafoods, for a new fish farm in the epicenter of the debate: the Broughton archipelago.

Against this backdrop, Northwest residents wait with bated breath as the BC government considers Pan’s application for the first three fish farms near the mouth of the Skeena.

Bridge over troubled waters?

Some kind of bridge across the gap of understanding between the two camps couldn’t come too soon. “It really does get emotional, and I’ll be the first to admit it comes from both sides,” says Roberts. “You start yelling back after a while.”

Fortunately, there are signs this bridge could be built.

The BC government-appointed Special Committee on Sustainable Aquaculture (which includes five NDP MLAs and four Liberals) is knee-deep now in its examination of the issue. Its interim report is expected in October, with its final report due by May 31, 2007.

And Broughton-area fish farms formerly owned by Marine Harvest are engaging in a research partnership with a coalition of the most vocal aquaculture opponents: the Coastal Alliance for Aquaculture Reform (CAAR).

The value of such collaboration cannot be understated, given the cost of monitoring salmon stock health and the proprietary value that fish farms place on their information.

“At least both parties are talking,” says Roberts. “Any discussion is good.”

Simon Jones, a DFO parasitologist involved in a research project involving sea lice in the Broughton, agrees. “Anytime you bring industry and an environmental group to the table, and agree to manage a local ecosystem, it’s a huge step forward,” he says. “I’m optimistic that it can yield some trust between the two groups.”

Admittedly, the collaborative spirit in both of these two initiatives is as fragile as a silvery pink smolt in a storm of sea lice — because it’s business as usual for both sides of the debate.

Robin Austin, NDP MLA from Terrace and chair of the aquaculture committee, is deeply dissatisfied that government approval of the new Broughton archipelago fish farm allows the industry to expand even before the committee has concluded its task.

“We’d hoped that when the premier announced this committee, there was a recognition that there is a problem with open-net fish farms,” he said from his Terrace constituency office. However, he concedes that the Liberal government didn’t offer any assurances there would be a moratorium on new fish farm licenses while the committee studies the issue.

In early April, CAAR announced that the new license could “threaten the stability of the dialogue” between its members and Marine Harvest. Back in January, CAAR’s anti-aquaculture ad campaign, which has targeted Safeway, prompted prominent fish farm advocate Patrick Moore to pose the question: “If they don’t back off on their marketing campaign then there’s no point in talking to them, is there?”

All eyes on the Broughton

Ultimately, aquaculture developments in the Skeena watershed will be affected by research underway now in the most scrutinized region of the BC coast: the Broughton archipelago.

DFO’s Simon Jones still maintains that more information is needed before fish farms can be conclusively identified as the primary cause of sea lice infestations among juvenile pink and chum salmon in the Broughton.

“We need more information on local oceanography and abundance of other fish in the Broughton that could serve as hosts for sea lice,” he said. “We need better data from the salmon farms, that we can add to DFO data to tell the whole story.”

He’s heartened to see fish farms offering more data to the DFO and CAAR. “This wasn’t happening five years ago, and it’s a huge step forward.”

According to Alexandra Morton, the researcher who first drew media attention to fish farms and sea lice in the Broughton Archipelago, evidence is plentiful and mounting. She says wild pink and chum returns are plummeting in the face of sea lice, which is more likely caused by fish farms than by any other factor.

“The problem with wild salmon is that they are difficult for politicians to manage,” she says, explaining that they are potentially affected by so many influential industries, including aquaculture, logging, offshore oil drilling and mining.

Morton, who just won the prestigious Murray Newman Award for Significant Achievement in Aquatic Conservation, says the dynamics of the entire debate became clear to her when she watched the documentary, The Corporation. Sea lice, and their devastation upon wild salmon, are just regarded as “externalities” by corporations, which taxpayers will ultimately pay for—like any other form of environmental degradation.

“People in the Skeena need to know about this,” she says. “They’re wise to be rallying now before they lose that resource.”

© Larissa Ardis 2006


Northwest Institute study online:
Friends of Wild Salmon:
Positive aquaculture awareness:
B.C. Salmon Farmers Association: